The Anchoress known as Julian of Norwich was born in late 1342, and may have lived well into the fifteenth century, dying around 1412. We know very few details about her life; in fact, we do not know even know her real name. At some point in her life she became an anchoress — a vowed solitary who lived a life devoted to prayer and meditation, confined to a cell adjoining a church. In her case, Julian’s cell adjoined the church of St. Julian in Norwich, from which we get her pseudonym. Virtually nothing is known about her aside from what she writes in her remarkable book, but even there she reveals little about herself, preferring instead to talk about her “courteous” God. In her work (the first book written by a woman in English), Julian recounts an amazing series of visions she had while suffering from a life-threatening illness; as she reflects on the meaning of her visions, she reveals a profound level of mystical wisdom and insight that, over six hundred years later, remains on the cutting edge of Christian theology.

In May 1373 when Julian was “thirty and one-half years old,” she became sick enough that a priest was summoned to come and issue her last rites. While on her supposed deathbed, he held a cross before her face and instructed her to gaze upon Christ for comfort. When she did so, she realized that she saw real, flowing blood on the corpus; this was the beginning a series of vivid, profound visions or “showings” — sixteen different revelations in which Christ, Mary, heaven, even hell and “the fiend” were shown to her. Shortly after this singular mystical experience she recovered from her illness, and subsequently wrote about her experience in a book that evolved over the following two decades. It appears she wrote a short text not long after the events of May 1373, and a longer text, completed twenty years later, filled with poetic and vividly rendered reflection on the theological meaning of her showings, centered on the lavish nature of Divine love.

The Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England
The Church of St. Julian, Norwich, England

Today, Julian is best known for her optimism; she is most-often quoted for saying “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (which was Christ’s response to her when she wondered about why sin had to exist). A lesser known but equally lovely quote: “The fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” Julian is also celebrated for naming both God and Christ as “mother.” More than a cute theological ploy, she articulates a fully-formed spirituality of the motherhood of God, yet always within the parameters of an orthodox appreciation of the Christian faith. In this way, Julian anticipates (by six centuries!) the best and most creative expressions of feminist Christian theology as has emerged in our time.

One of the loveliest stories from Julian’s series of visions involves a time when she was asked to hold something little, no bigger than a hazelnut. When she asks God what this is, she is told “It is everything that is made.” She marvels that this thing could even continue to exist, so small and delicate it appears. She then comes to understand that this little thing exists — and continues to do so — because God loves it. “In this little thing, I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. The third is that God keeps it.” Note the Trinitarian nature of Julian’s insight; indeed, Trinitarian imagery abounds throughout her writing.

Inside the Cell of Julian of Norwich
Inside Julian’s restored cell. In her day the room would
have been very simple with no altar or crucifix.

God made it, God loves it, and God keeps it. This sums up Julian’s optimistic, visionary theology — a theology where the love of God is expressed not in terms of law and duty, but in terms of joy and heartfelt compassion.

Excerpts are from the M. L. Del Mastro translation of Julian’s Revelation of Divine Love.

A Brief Julian of Norwich Bibliography

Editions of Julian’s book, translated into modern English:

Editions of Julian’s book, in middle English (Julian in her original words is not as daunting as you might think. Certainly there is no better way to study Julian, and some would say that even for devotional reading the original text is the way to go):

Books about Julian (popular/devotional):

Books about Julian (academic/scholarly):